Monday, December 7, 2015

Everybody Comes Together at Rick's: Lessons From Casablanca In Our War on Terror By Lauren Ennis

In my previous review, I discussed French films in tribute to the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Unfortunately, recent events have brought terrorism to the forefront of our lives once again. In this past week alone, fifty-seven people have been killed and one-hundred fourteen have been injured in terror attacks in Chad, England, Yemen, and the United States as well as an ISIS execution of a Russian citizen. In recent years, radical Islamist terrorist groups have caused death and devastation in cities across the globe. These attacks have been carried out against civilians of numerous races, ethnicities, religions, and political affiliations for one reason; the victims did not adhere to the oppressive beliefs of radical Islam. In light of recent events, it is undeniable that we as citizens of the free world are at war. It is a war that we have faced and overcome in the past, and will continue to face as long as there are people in the world who seek to threaten the freedom that defines our way of life. From 1932 to 1945 we faced a similarly dangerous threat from another group determined to invoke their beliefs and rule over others at any cost; the Nazis. Terrorist groups of today resemble the Nazis in their brutality, oppressiveness, and determination to eliminate any viewpoint that conflicts with their own warped ideology. After the Paris attacks, social media users around the world shared a clip from the 1942 classic Casablanca in order to show support for and solidarity with the victims of those attacks. The film, which chronicles a “fight for love and glory” and “case of do or die” that remains strikingly relevant today, contains far more inspiration than that one scene and conveys truths that hold as much meaning now as they did at the time of its debut in the midst of World War II. This week I will be discussing lessons from the film that our divided world once again desperately needs at this crucial moment in our history.
The usual suspects

Isolationism is no longer a practical policy: Adapted from a 1940 stage play written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, which was in turn inspired by the playwrights’ experiences in occupied Europe, Casablanca was written as both a critique of American isolationism and rallying cry for the Allied cause. The film focuses upon a world-weary saloon owner whose philosophy has been reduced to his repeated mantra of “I stick my neck out for no one”.  Convinced that defeat is inevitable, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) shuts himself away from the conflicts of the greater world, only to have world events enter his cafe and re-enter his life with the return of former flame, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). Just before Ilsa’s arrival in the café, Rick reaffirms his isolationist stance when he stands by as black market racketeer Ugarte (Peter Lorre) is arrested by the Nazis, despite Ugarte’s pleas for his help. While Ugarte was presented as a mercenary character, he was also revealed to be playing an active role in fighting the Nazis by selling illegal visas to refugees seeking to escape from occupied Europe and assassinating two Nazi officers. Even after Ugarte’s arrest and eventual execution, Rick remains reluctant to take part in the Allied cause when he refuses to assist Ilsa and her husband, fugitive resistance leader Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), escape Casablanca. Rick’s refusal to help Ugarte and Victor sets off a chain of events that effects the lives of people on both sides of the war, much in the same way that the complacency of the global community has proven to be a catalyst in the rise of terrorist groups, as jihadism has been permitted to wreak havoc and gain power across the Middle East and Africa with precious little international action taken.

Today, we face a crossroads which is eerily similar to Rick’s in wake of the latest attacks, as we are presented with the choice of either taking necessary further action against terror organizations or continuing to push the issue of terrorism aside as ‘someone else’s problem’. Throughout the film, Rick dismisses the threat of fascism as a problem for Europeans like Victor and Ilsa, which holds no real meaning in his simple life. As the plot twists and turns, however, he is faced with the reality that for any man who hopes to maintain his integrity and humanity fascism is indeed a dire problem. It is all too easy and human to be too consumed by our personal concerns to pay mind to the troubles of people we have never met, but by continuing to do so we fail to realize that global issues like terrorism are in fact our problem. Today, people continue to advocate for causes such as racial, gender, religious, and sexual orientation equality. While each of these causes is indeed a worthy one, many fail to see that all of these individual causes fall under the same category of the fight against terrorism, as terror groups continue their mission of religious intolerance, gender oppression, racism, and homophobia. As a result, just as fascism was not just Europe’s problem, radical Islam is not a problem restricted to the Middle Eastern and African nations where its influence has taken the strongest hold, or of individual cities that have faced attacks, but is in fact a threat to every nation and city in which equality, dignity, and freedom hold any value.

Friendship is a beautiful thing: Set against the backdrop of a city populated by occupying forces and refugees from across Europe as well as local Moroccans, Casablanca contains an international cast of characters from various walks of life. One of the most poignant aspects of the film is the way in which its diverse cast of characters put aside their differences and unite to work together for a cause greater than themselves. It is unsurprising that several of the expatriates in the café continue to fight against the oppression that they previously escaped from, but the film also includes mercenary characters such as Ugarte who commit small acts of resistance, even as they continue to profit from the call for black market items that the Nazis have created. Even the cynical Ferrari reveals where his true sympathies lie when he tells Victor that Rick has the letters of transit, even though his decision to do so actually harms his own profits. One of the film’s most heartfelt moments occurs not between star-crossed lovers Rick and Ilsa, but instead between Rick and his friend, corrupt Vichy official Louis Renault (Claude Rains). Throughout the film, Louis insists that his sympathies ‘blow with the wind’ as he consistently acts in his own self-interest by aiding the presiding Nazi government and extorting sexual favors from desperate refugees in exchange for visas. After witnessing Rick’s courage in risking his own life in order to help Victor and Ilsa escape, however, he finally realizes that it might be a good time to become a patriot after all and follows his friend’s example by covering up Rick’s murder of Gestapo officer Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) at the risk of his own career and freedom.

Just as the diverse cast of characters at Rick’s Café overcome their differences to support and work with one another for the greater good, many people today have shown their own support in the fight against terrorism. Following the Paris attacks people voiced their support for France and the victims by sharing videos, words of encouragement, prayers, and images on the news and through social media. In the midst of this support, however, I was shocked and disgusted to see that many others offered only apathy, cynicism, and snide remarks. The majority of those who shared such negative reactions defended their views by saying that other terror attacks did not receive the same amount of public attention and raising questions concerning race. While all crimes of this nature deserve to be denounced, to make such distinctions in the midst of a tragedy is splitting hairs at best and causing further division in an already divided world at its worst. These reactions reminded me of a scene in Casablanca in which  Strasser smugly asks Rick “are you one of those people who can’t imagine us in your beloved Paris?” to which Rick, who bitterly associates Paris with his painful break-up with Ilsa, replies “It’s not particularly my beloved Paris”. In this scene, Rick is focusing upon his personal biases rather than the reality in front of him, much in the same way that people dismissing the Paris attacks placed their own agendas before the gravity of those tragic events. Like the Nazis, terrorists today are utilizing a ‘divide and conquer’ tactic by causing chaos and unrest in our society which pits us against one another when we should be uniting in a common cause. By continuing to focus upon our differences and attacking each other’s views we are taking the same resources that we should be using to stand up to this enemy and instead utilizing them to alienate one another. In this way, we are allowing terrorists to claim further territory, not on our lands but within our minds and hearts. Our battle against terrorism, while indeed a violent one, is at its heart a battle of ideas, and by failing to stand together in words and ideas we are in fact giving in to the ideology of fear and distrust that terrorists are hoping to instill within us. Rather than allowing ourselves to fall into the ideological trap that has been set for us, we should instead take a lesson from the clientele at Rick’s and come together, not in a café, but in a movement to face and overcome the fear and division that our foes are working to inspire within us.
Taking the sting out of occupation

If we stop breathing we die; if we stop fighting our enemies the world dies: When Rick first learns of Victor’s arrival in Casablanca, he is instantly impressed and there is little reason to wonder why. While Rick’s hardships have left him embittered, Victor’s hellish ordeal in a concentration camp has left him more determined than ever to fight for his beliefs. Prior to the events of the film, Victor is described as using his job as a reporter to print stories exposing and denouncing the atrocities committed by the Nazis. After narrowly escaping the Gestapo in Prague he went on to Paris and, rather than safely living in anonymity, continued his work where he had left off. Upon arriving in Casablanca, he is closely monitored by the corrupt Vichy government and under constant threat of arrest. Even under these dire circumstances, however, he continues to carry on with his work by attending resistance meetings and heroically leading a public demonstration in front of Strasser and other Gestapo officials. Victor's actions, while seemingly small, prove so inspiring that Rick eventually follows his example first through subtle acts of resistance such as helping a newlywed refugee purchase a visa so she will not be forced to sell herself to Louis and eventually through his decision to give up his relationship with Ilsa and aid Victor's escape. 

In our own lives it seems impossible to take action against such a massive threat, and Victor Lazlo is a character who seems more myth than man. There are, however, always ways both great and small to contribute to the causes that we believe in. Since the Paris attacks of January 2015, the hacker/activist group Anonymous has launched a cyber assault against ISIS and other terrorist organizations by reporting organization members’ identities and funding sources to police, shutting down supporters’ social media accounts, hacking into websites that express views which are sympathetic to the groups, and on December 12 will be launching its own propaganda campaign. Although the group utilizes sophisticated tech skills and methods in its efforts, it has opened its doors to any citizens interested in doing their part to fight terrorism by releasing a ‘how to’ guide with instructions on how to cyberattack ISIS regardless of would-be hackers’ computer skills. The group has also requested that the public take part in its“Trolling Day” propaganda campaign this Friday by posting jokes, cartoons, and memes exposing ISIS for the barbarians, hypocrites, and cowards that they are. This campaign is strikingly similar to the much shared scene in Casablanca in which Victor inspires the café’s patrons by leading them in an impromptu rendition of French national anthem “La Marseillaise” which drowns out a group of Gestapo officers’ rendition of the German patriotic tune “Die Wacht Am Rhein”. While it may not be saving lives or attacking these groups at their source, Trolling Day is a similarly admirable effort, which I hope will serve to boost morale as well as destroy the carefully constructed image that ISIS has created online. For those who prefer not to utilize social media there are other ways to contribute, such as reporting suspicious activity you see to the authorities, voting on issues related to foreign policy, writing letters to your local representative or news outlet, showing support for our troops as they participate in military action against terrorism, offering support to victims of terrorist attacks, boycotting social media sites that refuse to censor terrorist propaganda, discussing events related to terrorism, and even the simple act of remaining informed of current events. As is shown by the enduring power of Victor Lazlo’s demonstration, any effort regardless of how small it may seem can and does matter. Despite what Rick might say, the problems, and more importantly the actions of little people do matter, even in this crazy mixed up world. While the threat of the Nazis may be long since passed, radical Islamic terrorists have taken up the torch of hate and oppression set down by their predecessors, thereby becoming the threat of our time. The fight against terrorism is our burden and struggle, and if we fail to come together in this cause we will regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and possibly for the rest of our lives.


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  2. I never realized before how relevant some film noirs are relevant to today's current events. Great article (as usual :) )